Preview: Toulon v Wasps

Date published: April 5 2015

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No team ever won three Heineken Cups in a row, but Toulon are favourites to make it three European titles in succession this season.

Jonny Wilkinson may be gone, but the dominant pack and World Cup winners' medals are still very much present in a star-studded team.

This weekend they welcome Wasps, as the Coventry side aim to become the first team to win at the Stade Félix Mayol in Europe's top competition.

While this looks to be the biggest mismatch of the weekend, there are certainly some reasons to be optimistic for Wasps. Thanks to their endless stock of world class forwards, it's nigh on impossible to beat Toulon in an arm wrestle, but if there is one area where they can occasionally be undone, it's in a more open game.

Last weekend Toulouse threw caution to the wind in the second half at the Stade Vélodrome, running in four tries and butchering two more.

Unfortunately for Wasps, the absence of Christian Wade is a hammer blow, but Tom Varndell certainly offers a scoring threat for them. Equally crucial might be the suspension of Nathan Hughes, and whatever your thoughts on his red card last week, it's clear that Wasps will miss him.

In his place comes Guy Thompson, and the battle of the back rows will be crucial, as he joins Ashley Johnson and James Haskell. They face Mamuka Gorgodze, Steffon Armitage and Chris Masoe, and you feel their only hope will be to keep that trio moving all game.

Nicolas Sánchez has now left Toulon, with Frédéric Michalak fit again, and the mercurial French playmaker will get his chance to start at ten after five months out with a shoulder problem.

Dai Young, who knows what it takes to beat Toulon in France – he did so in a Challenge Cup final in Marseille in 2010 – has obviously realised he needs an open game, and Alex Lozowski gets his shot at fly-half. Will Helu replaces Wade out wide as Wasps has put out their most attacking possible lineup.

Players to watch:

For Toulon: Back from injury last weekend, Frédéric Michalak generally performed well against Toulouse before heading off with quarter of an hour to go, more or less coinciding with Toulon falling apart. While his goal-kicking was far from perfect, he produced one interception that probably saved a try and led to Toulon's first, while he was a constant threat on the gain-line. With Matt Giteau waiting in the wings, Toulon might not be too concerned if it's an open encounter. Steffon Armitage will also be key as he tries to take these last opportunities to prove he should be in England's World Cup plans. Legal issues notwithstanding, Armitage has enjoyed another fine season in Europe, and will have a lot to do on Saturday alongside Gorgodze and Masoe. For all their caps and experience, they are not the most dynamic pair, leaving Armitage with an important role if the game opens up.

For Wasps: Elliot Daly was lethal once more against Northampton last week, and Wasps will want more of the same up against Mathieu Bastareaud. While Daly will have to muscle up in defence, there will be gaps in the Toulon midfield to exploit, and he'll need to exploit them. Up front Wasps will struggle to get parity, but Bradley Davies will have to get them close as he goes up against two World Cup winners in Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha. The South African has been missing for a few weeks now with a finger problem, and it's shown. Davies and Wasps will be hoping he's still a little rusty and the Welshman will be his usual abrasive self.

Head-to-head: With Wade absent, Tom Varndell will provide arguably Wasps' greatest try-scoring threat, but he will be up against the little-known, but very dangerous Josua Tuisova. A week after treating Maxime Médard like a ragdoll, people are starting to notice the threat posed by the young Fijian. Varndell is hardly famous for his defensive qualities, but he will need to be at his best to stop Tuisova. When he has the ball however, Varndell could have some joy, as Tuisova was caught out on more than one occasion last week with his positioning. The return of a genuine full-back in Delon Armitage may help, but it's clear that Tuisova remains very raw.

Prediction: With a full deck to choose from there was always a thought that Wasps might be able to run it around use their greater speed and dynamism to surprise Toulon. That will likely still be their tactic, but the absences of Nathan Hughes and Christian Wade really hurt them. While Toulon have been more of a 40-minute side in recent weeks, it's still hard to see them slipping up here. Toulon by 9!

The teams:

Toulon: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Josua Tuisova, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Sebastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Chris Masoe, 7 Steffon Armitage, 6 Mamuka Gorgodze, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Carl Hayman (c), 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Alexandre Menini
Replacements: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Xavier Chiocci, 18 Levan Chilachava, 19 Juan Fernandez Lobbe, 20 Rudi Wulf, 21 Matt Giteau, 22 Michael Claassens, 23 Jocelino Suta

Wasps: 15 Rob Miller, 14 William Helu, 13 Elliot Daly, 12 Andrea Masi, 11 Tom Varndell, 10 Alex Lozowski, 9 Joe Simpson, 8 Guy Thompson, 7 James Haskell (c), 6 Ashley Johnson, 5 Kearnan Myall, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Edd Shervington, 1 Matt Mullan
Replacements: 16 Carlo Festuccia, 17 Simon McIntyre, 18 Jake Cooper-Woolley, 19 James Gaskell, 20 Thomas Young, 21 Charlie Davies, 22 Andy Goode, 23 Alapati Leiua

Date: Sunday, 5 April
Venue: Stade Félix Mayol, Toulon
Kick-off: 16:15 local (15:15 GMT)
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Dudley Phillips (Ireland), Gary Conway (Ireland)
TMO: Marshall Kilgore (Ireland)

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